By Sheldon Bycoff
One problem of modern life is social isolation.
Described in journals as a person’s “perceived social isolation,” i.e., a subjective belief that they are socially isolated, another way of summarizing this condition is simply “feeling lonely.”
The opposite feeling – that you have a network of supportive relationships – provides numerous psychological benefits, including a sense of belonging, an increased sense of self-worth, and a feeling of security.
Thankfully, there are actions people can take to reduce a sense of isolation (discussed below).
- Causes of Isolation
Many circumstances can lead one to feel isolated, including: a job loss; a divorce; injury or illness; the death of a loved one; having a family member with an illness that requires extensive care; etc.
- Implications of Feeling Isolated
Besides negatively affecting one’s mood, feeling isolated and lonely is a risk factor for many medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, depression, and impaired executive functioning.
In fact, the influence of social relationships on the risk of death is comparable to well-established mortality risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceeds the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.
- Ways to Reduce Isolation
Numerous authorities, including the Mayo Clinic, have suggestions for increasing one’s social network, such as:
Take a weekly class, whether at a gym, a local college, or as part of adult education, so that you will have regular contact with the same people and be more likely to establish friendships.
Join a lecture series.
Consider getting a roommate.
Change your housing situation to one where there are more opportunities to be a part of a community.
Go online (especially helpful for people who are homebound).
Options abound: join a chat room for people who share one of your interests, e.g., writing, cooking.
Keep in touch with out-of-state friends and family thru Skype, Facebook (or FaceTime on an iPhone).
Visit sites designed specifically for people going through stressful times, such as a divorce, or the arrival of a new baby. Expand your social sphere through social networking sites such as Facebook.
- Primer on Building and Nurturing Friendships
Respond and Reciprocate. Answer phone calls, return emails, and reciprocate invitations in order to let people know you care.
Don’t compete. Be happy (not jealous) when your friends succeed.
Be a good listener. When someone is talking, really listen to what they’re saying (as opposed to formulating in your mind your next response).
Don’t overdo it. Be careful not to overwhelm friends and family with phone calls and emails. In addition, be wary of “oversharing” with new or casual acquaintances and on social networking sites.
Taking the time to build a social support network is a wise investment in your mental well-being and physical health. Research also shows that those who enjoy high levels of social support live longer. Whether you make more friends or improve the quality of relationships you already have, you’ll reap a plethora of rewards.
By Sheldon Bycoff is President, Mental Health Programs, Inc.